What it’s like as a tech lady

Sometimes men in tech and women outside of tech ask me what it’s like as a woman engineer. It’s hard to say – I’ve been in industry since before I was an adult, so I really don’t have a lot to compare it to. However, I saw this video a few months ago and it was a revelation. “Hello m’lady” illustrates what it’s like as a woman when a seemingly nice guy refuses to get a clue that you don’t want to be in a relationship. And not in a physically threatening way – just in an annoying pathetic way. THAT IS WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A WOMAN IN TECH. I mean, it’s not ALL of what it’s like, but it’s SO common and relentless. Throughout my twenties, before I had an obvious partner-now-husband (who worked in my office, btw), I dealt with this stuff every day. Every woman I’ve met in tech has had to deal with this at some point.

Why is it like this for women in tech? Put relatively few women in a room with many socially awkward men. Presto! Hello m’ladies abound. I wish I had known this was a common thing and not just me. I really did feel guilty all the time for the relentless unwanted attention, even though in retrospect it was completely not my fault. Given that Amy Schumer made this, it looks like plenty of non-tech women deal with this too, so it’s at least heartening to know we’re not alone.

I’m not unsympathetic to the perpetrators – they think they’re being nice and can’t understand why women don’t respond to their passive aggressive overtures. But they fail to recognize, whatever their intentions, that their behaviour is unwanted. To presume the right to behave this way is straight up entitlement. These gentlemen would be better served to take no for an answer and move on.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and the PyCon 2013 Incident

Women in tech, as a topic, has been popping up in the media I consume more regularly these days. In most cases, the observations are from third parties and almost universally frustrating to observe as a first party woman in tech. Case in point is Jon Ronson’s take on the PyCon 2013 sexism incident, which is included in his recently released book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In his book, Ronson examines the rising phenomenon of large-scale public shaming via social media, the primary example of which is the Justine Sacco incident wherein Sacco makes a tasteless tweet about her susceptibility to AIDS on her upcoming trip to Africa. While I’m ambivalent to Ronson’s commentary on the Sacco incident, I think he goes off the rails with his interpretation of the PyCon incident and completely overlooks the resulting positive shifts in tech towards supporting women and diversity in general.

To refresh: During PyCon 2013, a technology consultant (Adria Richards) tweeted about two men behind her during a conference session who were making juvenile and sexist jokes. Ultimately, both Richards and one of the men making the jokes [Details]. Ronson reframes the issue with a highly contested recounting of events and equates Richards’ tweet with Sacco’s thoughtless attempt at an Africa AIDS joke.

To me, Ronson’s assessment is completely tone deaf to the struggles of women in tech and the tremendous positive impact Richards’ brave actions have had on women in tech since the PyCon 2013 incident. Even more galling was that in that same podcast Ronson acknowledges the importance of public shaming for movements like #blacklivesmatter, where long-standing practices of police brutality towards African Americans are finally being regularly covered in mainstream media.

To me, the PyCon 2013 incident is much closer to the #blacklivesmatter movement than to Sacco’s shitty joke. While women in tech are not being murdered (though Richards’ has received death threats following PyCon 2013), we are being discouraged from and pushed out of an industry that, when it’s good, is both professionally fulfilling and economically empowering. Anecdotally, I have felt a positive shift in the tech industry towards women following PyCon 2013. There is also data to back this up. Consider the Google Trends results for “women in tech”:

Google Trends - %22women in tech%22

Google Trends Graph for “women in tech”

PyCon 2013 was in March 2013, which coincides with roughly double the interest in “women in tech” as observed through Google search requests. While that spike was temporary, the rate of interest in the topic has increased at a faster rate than pre-PyCon 2013. Last month, searches for “women in tech” essentially matched those of May 2013, though that peak is no longer an anomaly in the overall trend for the topic.

The Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) for Women in Computer Science – the largest conference for women in tech, almost doubled in attendance following the PyCon 2013 incident (2014 was the first GHC organized following PyCon 2013):

GHC Participation 1994 - 2014

 Source: GHC 2014 Impact Report

In addition to increased capacity, GHC 2014 had much more visible male participation from the mainstream, including the first-ever male keynote presented by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Nadella’s keynote contained some of his own tone deafness, but the response and engagement that resulted emphasized a real shift in our industry to acknowledge and address the challenges faced by women in tech.

I have also witnessed progress within Google, much of which isn’t publicly shareable, though the releasing of diversity stats has been a good step forward. The fight for women in tech and diversity in general at Google continues to be an uphill struggle, but I have felt the conversation switching from “is this really an issue?” to “how do we fix this?”. Which is why Ronson’s perspective is such a regression – he takes the conversation from “how to fix this?” all the way back to “is it polite to complain about the struggles of women in tech?”.

Polite or not, Adria Richards sounded an alarm that has been heard by and industry that has a deserved reputation for tone deafness to diversity. If tech can get it together to ask the right questions, I certainly hope Ronson can catch up as well.

The Wage Gap: Pt. 1

The pay gap between men and women in America and beyond is widely recognized, but poorly understood. I count myself among those who don’t really know what the reported stats – or at least I did until I started looking into the data. CBS News reported that “(a)ccording to the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman earns just 78 cents for doing the same job.” [1]. Turns out that’s both incorrect and insufficiently alarmist.

First: “just 78 cents for doing the same job” – that’s completely wrong. That statistic comes from a comparison of the median income across all women vs. the median income across all men.[2] There’s no telling which job that represents for each gender – it includes CEOs, truck drivers, accountants… everyone. But it most certainly isn’t representative of any wage gap between men and women in a specific job. As the graph below shows, income disparity on a per-occupation basis varies wildly – from 60% all the way to 107% (ProTip: women should consider careers in baking over sales)

median_wage_disparity_by_occupation_2013

The US Bureau of Labor and Statistics does provide finer grained comparisons by occupation, but the comparison remains based on median income and doesn’t account for differences across ranks, companies, or geographies.[3] For instance, both an entry-level software developer at a cash-poor start-up and a Distinguished Engineer at highly-profitable tech giant would be grouped into the same category. More on this in future posts, but suffice to say “just 78 cents” is certainly not “for doing the same job”.

Second, measuring the wage gap based on medians for broad categories understates the economic disparity between women and men in the US. The median gives you a narrow slice of wage earners without information about the higher wage earners who, for better or for worse, hold more power in the economy. And unfortunately, when I graphed it out, it’s the worst case scenario:us_income_by_gender_2013

Women’s incomes skew way low, and men are overrepresented in the top half of the spectrum.[4] Coupled with women’s lower workforce participation (44% of the US workforce[3]), women earn only 38% of the dollars earned in the US. That amounts to 61 cents for every dollar men earn – the 78 cents at median is deceptively high.

When we’re earning only 38% of the dollars, it’s no wonder policies on pay equity, reproductive rights and women’s access to capital rarely advance. It’s also a compounding problem: women are poorly represented in the top tiers of business, politics, and culture; to advance takes money in the form of investments and donations, and women have relatively little money to share compared with their male counterparts.

It’s lame. Next, I’ll consider how moving more women into tech-based occupations could impact the women’s economic disparity.

Stating the Obvious: Google Consumer Surveys finds more men than women in STEM

…and we’re back! Following my 2-month study-induced hiatus, I’m finally catching up with a bunch of posts I’ve wanted to write since the fall.

One of the upsides of working at Google is trying out cool new products. In particular, I weasled myself a coupon for Google Consumer Surveys, Google’s new shiny online platform for rapidly collecting user feedback. Google Consumer Surveys, in spite of its clunky name, is a surprisingly simple and elegant approach to data gathering that has the added bonus of potentially saving the publishing industry. Basically, people who want data can pay some money to site owners to pop up a one or two question survey for users to answer as an alternative for paying for content, like a magazine article. It’s also been praised by data-nerd guru Nate Silver as the second most accurate polling data source for the 2012 Presidential election.

The Question

Not being an expert pollster, I chose a pretty simple question: Have you ever considered a career in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) field?

The Insights

The first insight Google finds is completely obvious: “Men picked Am currently working in STEM more than women.”

genderstem

Glad I used a coupon. The data is pretty clear: at all levels of STEM involvement, the gender stereotypes are well preserved. Sigh.

The other insights were not nearly as obvious. For instance, “Among men, those aged 35-44 picked No, have never considered STEM more than those aged 65+.” In fact, among men the 65+ crowd were the most likely to have considered a STEM career at some point.

My guess is that this is sampling bias. Older people are less likely to be tech savvy, and those who are have probably had some level of involvement or, at the very least, some interest in the sciences.

Another digital divide is also apparent: (sub)urban vs. rural. Rural respondents were much less likely to be working in high tech, and among respondents who haven’t worked in STEM, rural respondents were the most likely to have aspired to work in STEM. The results are particularly pronounced for women.

urbanvsrural

 

The challenges of getting into technology as a person living in a rural community comes up in an upcoming tech lady profile. Personally, I know far fewer people from rural communities in technology than women. So again, Google’s results capture this well.

Overall, the results weren’t really insightful, mostly just validated previous understandings of the disparities in STEM. But this is more due to the boringness of my question. What I really need is a better understanding of what to ask to get more meaningful information.

Any suggestions for questions? I’m back and I’ve got time to mess around with some data.

 

I am a terrible blogger

It’s been about a month since I last posted. It’s been very hectic – my team at Google launched a totally new product and I’ve been taking a grad course at Stanford in my non-existent spare time. As a result, I haven’t been making as much time for the blog as I had hoped. I’m especially eager to write up the most recent interview I did – she’s an amazing lady with a completely unique story that I can’t wait to tell. Luckily, she’s also extremely patient 🙂

In the meantime, I highly recommend checking out a series Google Developers Live team is presenting on Women Tech Entrepreneurs. You can see the previous recorded episodes, or login at 5:30pm EST Thursday and Friday to watch episodes live. So far, they haven’t received many live questions, so I’m sure they would appreciate your input. I’m amazed at how young some of these women are – and they’re running multimillion dollar businesses!

Lessons from the Grace Hopper Celebration

The following was posted by a colleague of mine, Astrid Atkinson, on her return from this year’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. I admire her a ton and hope to profile her for the blog sometime soon. For those of you unfamiliar with Grace Hopper Celebration (zOMG where have you been?!?!), it is one of the premier conferences for women in tech organized by the Anita Borg Institute. This year’s just wrapped up in Baltimore. Sadly, I could not attend, but Astrid and many other Googlers, including some very high ranking VPs, made it out.

Last week I was at the Grace Hopper conference for women in computing, in Baltimore. The conference itself was a really good experience – it’s always good to talk with other women in the industry, and I particularly enjoyed the chance to talk to women who are just starting out their careers in tech.

One of my vectors of interest for a conference like this is, of course, personal – the conference has a strand of sessions centered around women in leadership positions, which is great for professional development. But my greater interest is in driving change in the industry, and trying to figure out what kind of changes would be most helpful, both locally and globally.

One theme that stood out to me was the importance of providing entry points for women into the industry and into tech in general. I went to a great session given by +Jessica McKellar of the Boston Python Users’ Group, which went into detail on how they managed to drive participation of women in the group from 0% to 15%, and the short answer is – focused, beginner-level instruction aimed specifically at women, followed by whole-group project nights in which the new beginners could interact with and learn from the more experienced members of the community.

Once the women had an entry point into coding in python and the tech community, a lot of them stuck around to become active members of the user group, and some went on to become experts. How exciting is that? I was particularly struck by her description of the demographics of the people they brought in – a lot of the women who took the classes were older, some looking for ways to re-enter the industry after time away, others just looking to understand a little about coding.

Something which stood out – from Jessica’s talk, from the questions that people asked in panel sessions, and also from talking to new grads on the conference floor – was that the tech industry’s emphasis on elitism and lack of focus on mentoring and training is really off-putting to a lot of women who might otherwise be interested. It’s not easy to get from beginner-level to community participant all on your own, nor is it easy to get from new grad to experienced professional without help. The narrative around computer science often describes it as an individual pursuit, done in all-night redbull-fuelled coding benders. We also focus a lot on self-taught and non-academic success stories, to the extent that a lot of people in the industry will solemnly proclaim a computer science degree to be useless.

That narrative could not be further from the truth, and it creates a self-selecting profile for people who enter and remain in the industry which is very narrowly defined. This does a disservice to anyone who doesn’t fit the profile – many women, as well as quite a few men. The truth is that you don’t have to have been coding since you were eight to be a good engineer (or successful in any other technical role), nor will all potential success stories possess the blinding self-confidence for which we tend to select. A lot of potentially very good engineers will need to be supported, trained and mentored into true excellence. This doesn’t end in school – it’s true at all levels of industry.

Another thing that stood out was that a lot of technical women have a broad array of interests, of which many others (UI or UX, other sciences, etc) may well lead them into segments of the industry in which they’re less isolated (who wants to be the only woman in the room? It’s an incredibly intimidating situation to be in). The loss of these potential generalists is a loss to us all. We need the perspective that these women could bring, particularly in the segments of the industry which need to interact with users in the real world.

(There is also a subtle overlap between these categories, which is women with non-standard career trajectories. Not all women in tech are computer scientists, and those who are sometimes come in from unusual backgrounds, partly because it’s flat-out hard to survive the isolation of low female representation in the mainstream part of the industry. People in these situations tend to suffer from the industry class system in which there are coders and engineers, and then there’s everyone else. This isn’t doing us any favors, either.)

The last theme is the sad one, which is that the industry, and tech fields in general, are often flat-out awful to women. There’s still a lot of shockingly direct discrimination, and the simple experience of the current sad state of the gender balance (85/15 is the general industry-wide stat; in some fields, including mine, it’s as low as 5% women) means that most women will experience being the only woman on their team, the only woman in the room, sometimes the only woman in their entire office or company, which leads to both isolation and dysfunction. While we can’t fix the isolation problem directly, we could be doing a much better job of stamping out the dysfunction – which starts with things like supporting female colleagues and employees, and directly calling out bad behavior as it comes up.

I guess the single biggest theme, if I was going to sum up the things we should probably try to change, is “Don’t be a dick.” (haha, yes, I’m funny.) If we did a better job of supporting and mentoring, and were nicer and each better able to recognize the value of contributions which don’t look exactly like our own, then attracting and retaining more women – and more people – wouldn’t be such a challenge.

(Actionable? Not terribly. However, the part about the importance of training programs is one which I will take home and try to do something about, and the part about supporting female colleagues and employees is one that I try to do every day.)

Internships at teh GOOG

Most CS/engineering students know about Google’s internship programs. BUT! Did you realize they have a special internship program for 2nd year university students (aka “College Sophomores”)? Indeed, Google runs the Engineering Practicum program to specifically target young university students, especially “those who are historically underrepresented in the field” – that means YOU, ladies! Like having three stalls to yourself every time you go to the bathroom at Google, this is one of the rare times you get the long end of the stick. So take it!

If you or someone you know would be a good fit, it’s time to apply. The deadline is October 15th. Your’s truly hosted 3 BOLD (that’s what the program was called way back then) interns two summers back, and it was a fantastic experience for both hosts and interns. All of the students we hosted got offers to come back, and all accepted, which should show you how fun and awesome it can be.

Apply today!